Gender-related differences in cardiac rehabilitation referral patterns and response to an aerobic conditioning program were examined in 226 hospitalized older coronary patients (aged greater than or equal to 62 years). Overall, the outpatient cardiac rehabilitation participation rate in this population was 21%. Older women were less likely to enter cardiac rehabilitation than were older men (15 vs 25%; p = 0.06), despite similar clinical profiles. This was explained primarily by a greater likelihood of primary physicians to strongly recommend cardiac rehabilitation to men. Before conditioning, women who entered cardiac rehabilitation were less fit than were men; peak oxygen consumption was 18% lower in women (16 +/- 5 vs 20 +/- 5 ml/kg/min; p = 0.02). However, both groups improved aerobic capacity similarly in response to a 12-week aerobic conditioning program, with maximal oxygen consumption increasing by 17% in women and by 19% in men. Thus, older female coronary patients are less likely to be referred for cardiac rehabilitation, despite a similar clinical profile and improvement in functional capacity from the training component.